10/24/2010 08:08 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Fostering Mastery

Charlie Albright is faithful to his name. At 21, he has been playing the piano since age 3 and is working toward a joint degree from Harvard (pre-med and economics) and the New England Conservatory of Music (piano performance). He recently won the Gilmore Young Artist Award and last year won the Young Concert Artists International Auditions. He debuts before the year is out in New York and with the San Francisco Symphony.

On a recent Saturday, I heard him at a free concert at Longwood Gardens, a horticultural paradise near Chadds Ford, Pennsylavnia. Mr. Brightman, called a "poet of the piano" by one critic, received two standing ovations after his spirited and sensitive performance of Beethoven, Shulz-Evler and Schumann. I suspect that the audience of weekend tourists, many of whom learned of the concert only after entering the Garden's Conservatory where he played, was applauding not just his performance but the dedication to mastery that he represents.

While innate talent may well have played a part for Mr. Albright, we don't respect that in the same way. We are all born with innate talents, after all. But we don't all dedicate ourselves to developing them. It is his hard work and concentration on getting it right that at least in part awed the audience. Few of us were familiar enough with the music or the intricacies of piano performance to applaud because we were educated critics.

This magical afternoon poses a nagging question: where, how and how much, as a society, do we encourage our young people in hard work and concentration dedicated to mastery?

The typical school day for most children lasts about seven hours. During that time, four to five different subjects may be covered. From middle school onward, the day is carved into roughly one-hour periods that find children in different classrooms with different teachers studying different things. I doubt Charlie Albright could have mastered the piano in a few one-hour blocks of time spread over the week.

There are a few places in school, however, where mastery is encouraged and the time for it given. These include the athletic field, cheerleading, band, and symphony -- all after the official school day is over. For the small segment of the student body engaged in these, they have the pleasure of hours-long concentration aimed at mastery, and of the psychic rewards that come from both. For everyone else, mastery is not something that most schools are designed to provide.

Outside of school, encouraging mastery also seems difficult. Most homes lack parents until the end of the day, when they are tired and cannot easily support their children in mastering anything. The days are long gone, for most children, when an Andrew Wyeth (whose paintings are in a museun in Chadds Ford) could walk up the hill to his father's studio and watch him paint, try his own hand, and receive the encouragement, guidance and time on task to develop his art.

For too many of our young people, the chief avenue for mastery seems through technology. According to a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average 8 to 18 year old spends seven hours and 38 minutes a day using entertainment media (video games, cell phones, texting, social media, etc). This is about as much time as they spend in school (and some of them use these media there too, making academic mastery that much harder). Much of this time they are uninterrupted, free to concentrate and focus, and often aided by able mentors (their peers). It is not clear, however, what such mastery contributes to their intellectual, social, or moral development (the Kaiser study found that 47 percent of heavy media users report getting fair or poor grades, compared to 23 percent of light users). At an age where thoughtful and masterful guidance could produce a Charlie Albright, too many of our children are left to their own devices.

Educators and politicians have bemoaned the educational achievement of many young people, convinced that we need a longer school day and school year, better paid teachers, smaller classes, better facilities or some combination of all these things. But there is precious little evidence that any of that will work. What works, and we can see it in Charlie Albright (and Andrew Wyeth), is an early and dedicated effort to encourage talent, skilled mentors, time to concentrate and recognition of mastery as it develops. If we aim to truly improve the education of our young people, we need to find ways to create these conditions during their days in and after school.

Not everyone in society needs to be a Charlie Albright. This is not Lake Wobegon -- not all of children will be above average (though each child can be above average in something). But a society that does not encourage mastery gets mostly average performance. For our children, for ourselves, and for our future, we need more.